Islam and Egalitarianism; Subjugation of Women Is Not Koranic, Scholar Says

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 21, 2004 | Go to article overview

Islam and Egalitarianism; Subjugation of Women Is Not Koranic, Scholar Says


Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

To westernize the Middle East while abandoning Islam will only cause suspicion among Muslims, and do little to bring about political and social change, one Islamic scholar says. "Many of the social and cultural practices of Muslim societies have little or nothing to do with Islam, specifically as embodied in the teachings of the Koran," Asma Barlas said in a lecture last month at the Library of Congress.

The teachings of the Koran support egalitarianism, not patriarchy in any form, though the Koran recognizes patriarchy's historical existence, said Ms. Barlas, 54, associate professor and chairwoman of the department of politics at New York's Ithaca College.

The West should engage Islam on Islam's own terms and not attempt to secularize Islam "or make it over in the Western image of a completely privatized religion," said Ms. Barlas in her March 26 lecture, "Globalizing Equality: Muslim Women, Theology and Feminism."

Such an engagement requires a rereading of the Koran free of the patriarchal context that subjugates women as being inferior to men, Ms. Barlas said, since it is not the Koran, but the context in which it is read, that has subjugated women in the Islamic world.

Ms. Barlas questions the common argument that providing Muslim women with access to technology, high-tech employment and Internet access will enhance women's status in the Islamic world. What is needed, she said, is "a fundamental epistemic shift in how Muslims interpret and practice Islam."

"Such a shift would involve a willingness to read liberation from the same scripture that Muslims use to discriminate against women," she said.

Ms. Barlas argues for a "Koranic hermeneutics of sexual equality" and interpreting the Islamic scripture text to promote democratic reform. Islam, she said, is a product of how the Koran is read, "a function of who reads it, how and in what contexts." She says reading the Koran to give men sovereignty over women is a heresy.

"This is, of course, a controversial issue," said John Voll, professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University.

Traditional Muslims and radical secular feminists in the West believe that the Koran "requires subjugation of women by men," while most mainstream feminists "emphasize the Koran's position of gender equity," he said. "Mainstream Muslims, including the generally conservative ones, emphasize that the Koran's message is the message of gender equity within a framework of recognizing the differences between men and women."

Muslim women are not a homogeneous group and are not any more subjugated and oppressed than non-Muslim women, said Hibba Abugideiri, assistant professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.

"Women all over the world, including the West, are relatively less privileged than men in terms of their status, access to resources ... and even in their legal rights," she said. …

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